Teamwork key to success in countering illicit trafficking at sea
When a police officer pulls someone over and walks up to the driver-side window, it’s always with caution, always with uncertainty.
Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship Summerside and a Law Enforcement Detachment (LEDET) from the United States Coast Guard (USCG) take similar precautions as they combine efforts to approach suspect vessels during a recent Operation CARIBBE, Canada’s contribution to the multinational campaign against transnational criminal organizations in the eastern Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea.
During its two-month deployment in the Caribbean, Summerside patrolled more than 10 000 nautical miles, helping to locate, track, approach and visit vessels suspected of criminal activity, including illicit drug trafficking.
“It’s very much a risk-reward situation every time we approach a vessel,” said the officer in charge of the eight-member LEDET embarked in Summerside to conduct law enforcement operations, such as boarding and searching vessels for narcotics and other contraband. (Due to operational security the LEDET team cannot be identified).
When a suspect vessel is identified, Summerside approaches and launches a rigid-hulled inflatable boat (RHIB) to carry members of the LEDET within hailing distance so they can question the master. The RHIB is navigated by one of HMCS Summerside’s boat coxswains.
As they approach, LEDET members actively watch the vessel, eyes roving the decks taking in all aspects of the situation – objects or lines in the water that might foul the RHIB’s propellers; hazards on the deck that could prevent boarding; the movement and numbers of crew on board; and any sign of weapons.
At those times, the partnership between RHIB coxswain and LEDET is crucial to success. The LEDET must have confidence that the coxswain is skilled at handling the RHIB. Likewise, the coxswain must know the LEDET can cover him while he watches waves and adjusts throttle to keep the RHIB safe.
“We’ll go up off the vessel’s beam so the LEDET can assess what’s going on,” said RHIB coxswain Master Seaman Cory Bilodeau. “I’m focussed on what’s going on with the RHIB itself – reading the seas, trying not to pound the waves too much.”
It’s a team effort. “There is a big trust factor between the ship’s command team and the leadership of the LEDET team,” said Lieutenant(N) Scot Whyte, Summerside’s executive officer. “Over the last 10 years that we’ve been doing these operations, that relationship has been very strong and there is a mutual trust and respect between the two organizations.”
In preparation for the operation, RHIB coxswains and the LEDET conducted several training sessions.
“The integration was seamless,” said Lt(N) Daniel Chamberlain, Summerside’s deck officer, who thought it might take time for the two teams to mesh and understand each other. After just a few practices the LEDET had confidence their Canadian RHIB coxswains could skillfully manoeuvre alongside, approach and “stick” for LEDET insertion onto the suspect vessel as required.
“It really was fine tuning,” said Lt(N) Chamberlain. “The fundamentals were there. Our RHIB coxswains are second to none.”
Like the police officer walking up to the car, the RHIB coxswain and LEDET have to be ready to respond. They don’t know if the master of the vessel is telling the truth, or if there are drugs or fugitives on board, it’s a potentially volatile situation.
“Generally where you find illicit narcotics, there are weapons,” said Lt(N) Chamberlain. “The people who are transporting these narcotics are not keen to give them up because they represent a substantial investment.”
Sometimes the crews of the suspect vessels try to scuttle their vessels to destroy evidence or they jettison cargo, throwing bales of narcotics overboard to lighten the boat and attempt to flee. That’s where the risk-reward consideration comes into play.
“We have to weigh the risk versus reward,” the LEDET officer said. “What’s more important – to get the contraband or the people smuggling it? If we can, we try to get both.”
This year marks the 10th year Canada has contributed to Op CARIBBE in support of US Op Martillo, a joint multinational effort led by the US to eliminate illicit maritime and air trafficking in the eastern Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea.
Op CARIBBE helps strengthen international partnerships with nations across the hemisphere, and also demonstrates Canada’s commitment to support efforts to address security challenges in the region. Throughout the year, the RCN will deploy warships and the RCAF will deploy CP-140 Aurora aircraft from the East and West Coasts.
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